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Tulsa World

Cockfighting law halted in two more counties

TAHLEQUAH -- Cockfighting advocates gained another temporary victory Thursday when a district judge halted the statewide ban on the sport in two more counties.

District Judge Bruce Sewell granted a temporary restraining order against the ban in Cherokee and Wagoner counties. The restraining order will hold at least until a Dec. 2 hearing in Tahlequah.

So far, judges' rulings have kept the sport legal in eight counties. Oklahoma voters outlawed cockfighting in a Nov. 5 election.

Even as he issued the restraining order, Sewell said the state needs to deal with the cockfighters' legal challenges on a consolidated basis rather than a few counties at a time.

"Hopefully, we won't end up with a patchwork of cases across the state," Sewell said. "State law would allow centralizing the cases."

Another district judge Monday granted preliminary injunctions against implementation of the cockfighting ban in Choctaw, McCurtain and Pushmataha counties. Temporary restraining orders also have been granted in Adair, Sequoyah and Muskogee counties.

Thursday's civil petition was filed by five Cherokee County residents who make a living through cockfighting. Not all of them actually own roosters or make the birds fight.

Plaintiff Marci Gilliam of Tahlequah owns a hatchery. She was happy with Sewell's temporary decision.

"My livelihood depends on this," Gilliam said. "If they (cockfighters) can't have roosters, there's no need for me."

As in all of the cases filed so far, the Cherokee County plaintiffs allege the language from the Nov. 5 state question is un constitutionally vague and would hurt them financially without due process.

Sewell said the language of the ban is really the only legal question.

"I am unequivocally satisfied that the government has the authority and jurisdiction to limit by regulations or absolutely ban cockfighting," the judge said.

"That is not at issue in the case," he added. "We're only interested in whether the language of the petition meets due process . . . in crafting a statute that is constitutional."

Larry Oliver, attorney for the game fowl breeders, is ready to parse that language.

"All we ask for is an impartial ruling," Oliver said. "We feel like we can prevail."

While Sewell's ruling added two more counties to the list of those where the ban is on hold, the entire matter is moving closer to the state Supreme Court.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson plans to file an appeal of the first preliminary injunction a district judge granted to prevent enforcement of the new law.

Assistant Attorney General Sherry Todd told Judge Willard Driesel in Idabel on Monday that an appeal of his decision to grant the injunction would likely be filed.

On Thursday, attorney general's spokesman Charlie Price confirmed that an appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court was being prepared.

"We have plenty of time to file an appeal," Price said. "We are working on it now."

Few, if any, ban supporters were among the overflow crowd in Sewell's courtroom Thursday. Janet Halliburton, chair of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting, was in Oklahoma City and unable to attend the hearing.

Later, however, she applauded moves to centralize the cases.

"It is time for our attorney general to come forward and take this issue to the Supreme Court," Halliburton said. "That is the proper venue for this issue, not the district courts."

Anti-cockfighting advocates condemn cockfighting as a brutal sport in which roosters are equipped with metal spurs and are matched up until one of them dies.

The sport's proponents say the birds are fiercely territorial anyway and would launch into mortal combat on their own. Many proponents also wager on the results.

They also believe the move to ban their sport is a culture war pitting urban and rural counties.

Cherokee County game fowl breeder Jim Thouvenel noted that 43 percent of the yes votes came from Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.

"If they don't want to go to the chicken fights, they don't have to go," Thouvenel said.

Even outgoing District Attorney Diane Barker Harrold, one of the defendants in Thursday's filing, claimed that she voted against the ban. She noted that offenders could spend up to 10 years in prison.

"From a prosecutor's standpoint, we can't get all the bad guys in prison now," said Barker Harrold, who lost her re-election bid in August. "A prison sentence is way too harsh in that kind of situation."

Halliburton characterized some of the cockfighting crowd's reactions to the ban as bizarre. A woman who testified Monday in McCurtain County said she slaughtered more than 300 of her roosters.

In the end, she hoped for quick action from the Attorney General's Office. Consolidation will be the only way to stem a continuing onslaught of county lawsuits.

"If we don't move now then we will see more of this," Halliburton said. "Hopefully, something will happen next week."